Mao: The Unknown Story
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Random House 2005).
No one in her right mind would frame a Third Reich propaganda poster and hang it on the office wall. No one would buy a "cute" ceramic figurine of Stalin for display in the den. Yet memorabilia and artifacts associated with Mao Tse-Tung, from reproductions of Andy Warhol's lithographs to ironically purchased copies of the Little Red Book, are acceptable in polite society. So is the very idea of Mao, as academic and popular writers discuss back and forth which of his achievements outweights which of his failures, crystallized in the official Chinese Communist Party line that Mao was 70% correct and 30% wrong.
I mention this cultural reality to pre-empt the argument most frequently launched against Mao: The Unknown Story, the charge that the majestic biography of the Chinese leader is unfair or unobjective. Mao is not intended to be a balanced, neutral report. It is intended to be an indictment, supported by millions of facts, many in Mao's own words. The book grabs you by the lapels and screams, "See what this monster did! Treating him as anything other than an auto-genocidal maniac is not OK!" Western culture maintains a willingness, based on more than 80 years of propaganda, to give Mao the benefit of the doubt; the intent of husband and wife historians Jung Chang and Jon Halliday is to make it unarguable that China, and the Chinese people, would have been infinitely better off if the madman had never lived. Like Hitler, the argument should be whether Mao was 0% or 1% correct.
Ego and Lies
Mao's dominant characteristic was an almost unfathomable egotism. "People like me want to . . . satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me," Mao wrote in college.
Mao was also a solipsist; he only believed in what he could personally experience. “I am responsible only for the reality that I know, and absolutely not responsible for anything else. I don’t know about the past, I don’t know about the future. They have nothing to do with the reality of my own self,” Mao wrote. “People like me are not building achievements to leave for future generations."
Almost every element of Mao's mythos is a lie, the authors argue.
Mao claimed to be a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, he joined in 1921, one year after the Party was founded.
Mao claimed the Party was independent of Moscow. In fact, the Party was controlled and financed by Stalin for decades.
Mao claimed to be a Communist true believer. In fact, Communism was merely an expedient way for him to acquire power and, in the earliest days of his involvement, a paycheck.
The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is bound with the Long March, a tactical retreat from Nationalist troops during the 1930s which is portrayed as the Party's finest hour. In fact, the Nationalist forces, which controlled most of China at the time, allowed the Communists to retreat unharmed so that they could be used as a bargaining chip with Stalin.
The centerpiece of the Long March was the crossing of the Luding Bridge, where heroic Communists rebuilt a bridge over the Dadu River under heavy Nationalist fire. In fact, there were no Nationalist soldiers at the bridge, and the Communists walked across without incident as confirmed by the Party's own records.
Mao did not march on the Long March. He was averse to all forms of physical exertion except swimming and sex, so he traversed the 7,000 miles of the Long March while being carried in a sedan chair.
The authors confirm other startling facts. Mao did not bathe or shower during the 27 years of his reign, and he never brushed his teeth, which became black. Mao never learned Mandarin and spoke throughout his life by way of interpreters who could translate his obscure Hunanese dialect. The women in the Army's dance and drill team were his harem. Mao ruled from bed, sleeping all day and dictating orders and reading books all night. Mao would meet foreign dignitaries in a dignified book-lined study, the contents of which had been looted from "landlords" and other "class enemies."
Chen and Halliday devoted ten years to researching and writing Mao. They conducted formal interviews and informal conversations with more than 400 people, including 16 heads of state and heads of government. Their sources ranged from Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush to the Dalai Lama to actor Michael Caine (who fought against Chinese troops in the Korean War) to almost every person, Chinese or otherwise, still living who had anything to do with Mao. From an American perspective, the only missing voice is that of Richard Nixon, who died as research for the book commenced.
Mao reads like a novel, a psychologically rich, epic tragedy colored by ambition, revenge, betrayal, war, diplomacy and blood, rivers and lakes of blood. The book is a quick and compulsive read, despite its length of almost 1,000 pages (about 200 of which are notes and sources). Mao is the Sopranos played on a global scale, the saga of a sadistic criminal who acquired absolute power over one quarter of the earth’s population.
More Than 70 Million Dead
Mao killed more people than any other person in human history -- and he did it during peacetime. In deriving the estimate that Mao was responsible for the deaths of more than 70 million people, Chang and Halliday do not include combat deaths during World War II (during which, contrary to his image as a freedom fighter, Mao refused to engage Japanese forces) or during the subsequent Chinese Civil War (which Mao won not by military genius, as is proclaimed, but because a top Nationalist general was a Soviet-installed sleeper agent who deliberately lost key battles).
Almost 40 million of those deaths occurred during a four-year period beginning in 1958 called the Great Leap Forward, which was the result of Mao's plan for personal global dominion. "We must control the earth" was his injunction. Mao told Party colleagues, “In the future we will set up the Earth Control Committee, and make a uniform plan for the Earth.”
Mao’s aspiration to become the ruler of the world was dependent upon China becoming a superpower within his lifetime. Since, as he noted in college, he didn’t care about the state of China after he died, the modernization of the country’s military infrastructure had to occur as fast as possible for the then-64-year-old dictator to achieve his goal.
Mao decided to buy military equipment, personnel and services – all of the elements of a modern military -- from the Soviet Union and other Bloc nations. But China did not have that kind of money; instead, Mao traded food for the armaments and obtained that food by requisitioning it from the rural peasants who grew it. Mao, who had no grasp of economics, calculated the requisition requirements by starting with the price of the arms he wanted to buy and working backward, never considering the yield of the lands or the nutritional requirements of the Chinese people.
The result was the largest famine in history. Mao’s superpower program reduced peasants to eating tree bark and dirt and, in some provinces, to cannibalism. Mao’s response was to “educate peasants to eat less, and have more thin gruel.” Mao was furious when local Party officials asked him to reduce food requisitions in the name of good conscience. “You’d better have less conscience. Some of our comrades have too much mercy, not enough brutality, which means they are not so Marxist,” Mao responded. “On this matter, we indeed have no conscience! Marxism is that brutal.”
Mao made it clear to his colleagues and his enablers that the Chinese people were expendable pawns. “We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of the world revolution,” Mao told his Russian armorers, referring to half of his nation. “Don’t make a fuss about a world war. At most, people die . . . . Half the population wiped out . . . ,” Mao told a 1958 Party Congress. “Working like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die,” Mao told his inner circle later that year. If there were a nuclear war with the United States, “All it is is a big pile of people dying.”
Terror and the Cultural Revolution
Mao retained control through terror, by jailing, torturing and killing millions of people, especially Party members, all the better to guarantee their obedience. “We must kill. And we say it’s good to kill,” Mao said, referring to the manner in which he would periodically purge the Party of “revisionists” and “rightists” and “capitalist roaders,” empty labels Mao applied to anyone who disagreed with him or whom he perceived as a potential threat. Mao ordered local officials to perpetrate “massive arrests, massive killings.” He would send memoranda demanding increases in the numbers of executions. ‘Be violent,” Mao told the Red Guards, college students whom Mao used as terrorists and bandits during a great purge that began in 1966.
That purge was called the Cultural Revolution because its first victims were artists, writers, painters and other intellectuals that Mao deemed to be “not useful.” (Scientists and engineers were spared because they could work on the superpower program.) Although its principal aim was to purge rival Communists, culture was a target. Thousands of historic structures were torn down, including the city walls of Beijing. Famous artists, actors and writers were beaten or killed, and books, paintings, sculptures, records and musical instruments were destroyed. Mao even ordered the pillaging of Confucius’ house, because Mao saw Confucius as a rival philosopher.
Everything Mao touched became a living Hell, and almost every countryman who crossed his path lived (or died) to regret it. Idealistic volunteers joined the Communist Party at its wartime headquarters of Yenan and discovered to their horror that they were being used as slave laborers who would be shot as deserters if they tried to leave. Mao allowed one of his sons to be held hostage by Stalin. The most dangerous jobs in China were as the official Number 2 and Number 3, and it is with those closest to him in the Party hierarchy to whom Mao was the most vicious.
The Misery of Chou En-Lai
Every Holmes has his Watson. Mao’s was Chou En-Lai, and Mao is of necessity also a biography of Chou. Mao envied and feared his Number Two, because Chou was everything Mao was not. Chou was handsome and charming, suave and tailored, China’s sophisticated face to the world. Many retired diplomats have said that Chou En-Lai was the most impressive person they ever met.
Mao made Chou pay terribly. Mao, the authors suggest, commissioned a treasonous article under Chou’s pseudonym and blackmailed him with it for more than forty years. Chou would have to give day-long “self-criticism” speeches, at which he would abase himself and tell the audience of his every mistake or transgression from Maoist orthodoxy. Chou was forced to act as Mao’s chamberlain, available at every hour to meet with Mao and to implement unquestioningly all of Mao’s orders. And, in 1975, when the two old men were dying, Mao refused to allow Chou early surgery for his bladder cancer, ensuring that Chou would die first. One of history’s dark jokes is that Chou, who was a blood-soaked despot by any objective standard, is considered by the Chinese and by China hands to have been a sympathetic moderate.
Stalin was right when he observed that one death is a tragedy and one million deaths is a statistic. The scope of Mao’s barbarism was so vast that the tens of millions of deaths he caused begin to blur. So here is the story of one.
The Death of Mao’s Second Wife
Yang Kai-hui was the second of Mao’s four wives, bearing him three sons. She was one of the few people who genuinely loved Mao. When Mao devoted himself to obtaining control over a portion of the Party’s army, Mao left Yang at her family home in Changsha, where she lived with the children for the next three years. Several months later, Mao married for the third time, never informing Yang.
In October 1930, Mao, returning with troops, attacked Changsha. The Nationalist government, which had left Yang alone since she was not involved in politics, arrested her and told her to divorce and denounce Mao or be executed. She refused to betray Mao even in words and, at the age of 29, she was shot. The soldiers in the Nationalist firing squad followed Chinese custom and threw her shoes as far as they could so her ghost could not haunt them. While the executioners were having lunch, they realized that she was still alive, and they shot her again.
What did the great man do while his wife was in danger? Chang and Halliday write:
“During his assault on Changsha, Mao made no effort to extricate her or their sons, or even to warn her. And he could easily have saved her: her house was on his route to the city, and Mao was there for three weeks. Yet he did not lift a finger.”
Something to remember the next time you see a “kitchy” Mao poster.